It's finally over. The long national cuddlefest turned nightmare Jon & Kate Plus 8, a reality show about a cutesy Pennsylvania couple and their enormous and unruly brood of eight, came to a bitter and depressing close last night. As I'm sure we're all aware, Jon and Kate Gosselin were unable to keep their marriage afloat under the weight of fame and cameras and lights—Kate became controlling and overly-ambitious, Jon regressed into bloated college partyboy mode. And the kids, I guess, just became collateral damage. Sweet, sweet highly profitable collateral damage. Let's take a look back at the era that was. What did we learn from it? What does the failure of the Gosselin family say about us?
Well, hopefully it doesn't say anything about us, about your or me, but I think the whole media experiment has deftly proven one small, almost too-simple fact: reality shows are bad for people. Fame is bad for people. Watching these nice folks, normal but for having a little too much fun at the fertility clinic, start a show because America was fascinated by their story and the fledgling family needed a lotta cash to pay for twins and a newborn litter of sextuplets, that was one thing. The beginnings, I believe, truly were humble and kid-focused and squarely practical. And it was mutually beneficial. They had diaper money, while TLC had a big feel-good hit on their hands. But what do you do when something's a hit? Yep, you work it even harder, squeeze until there's no juice left in the withering grapefruit these two country rubes used to a call a life.
And you could watch the change, watch as all the promos and Good Morning America appearances and pretend-books and travel and free hotel stays started to curdle and spread in the two adults' brains—it was like watching something slowly rot, an eerily real-time transformation from human to reality-TV-forged, fame-hungry monster. Kate got the plastic surgery done and then the hair—that dazzling architectural flourish of hair, something steep and swooped like a metal bird's wing in the front, spiked and almost zany in the back. She's trying to look fashionable, we thought sadly. And we wondered why someone from TLC, someone with an actual sense of style, didn't pull her aside and say "Kate, no..."
Jon grew bigger and seemed more and more petulant about the shackles keeping him from his newly-flashy existence, never really addressing the fact that those very shackles were the reason he had the flashy existence to begin with. Two people were profiting, hugely, off of their children, and the more they got, the more they wanted. Kate kicked beloved family members off the show when they started to ask for money, fearing that whatever TLC paid them would cut into her portion. Rumors that Kate wanted to go bigger, have her own talk show maybe, began to swirl and she soon became known as a harpy fame-grubber, a desperate peasant who saw a glimpse of court life through the kitchen door one day and decided that she wanted in, and that she'd do anything—barter her children for whatever they were worth—to sink her claws into it. And yet, the kids were still cute!
But then even they, especially the older twins, started to cloy to the camera, they struck poses and mugged and set up scenes like tiny pros. And you started to wonder when this thing would end, you started hoping it would end very soon, for these precarious kids' sakes. Surely J & K had stashed away enough money to pay for necessities and, someday, college at this point. But of course it wasn't up to us or the children, it was up to TLC and Jon and Kate and they kept barreling on. They kept trudging and shoving even when some shitty tabloid caught Jon stumbling out of a bar in Harrisburg with some suspicious floozy girl, Jon with a bleary look of resignation on his face. He'd been caught red-faced and trouble was coming, but also he kind of liked it. Both he and his hardening wife started to pose, just so, for the increasing flood of paparazzi that arrived when rumors of marital instability were smeared all over newstands. There was a certain bend of the neck, a certain slight tilt of the head. They liked to look wary of the cameras, but always quietly and reverently addressed them. They were paying homage to their secret god.
Though they weren't very good at keeping it a secret.
Suddenly a hit family show had turned into a souring media circus, it became a delve into the sad seediness of public lives, lives offered up to the TV immortals for a chance at some notoriety and cash. We owned Jon and Kate and even their eight, you see. We'd made them, we'd given them all they had, and as we can giveth, we can also taketh away. They were our little dolls to play with and, oddly enough, they actually seemed to enjoy it. Jon was seen with new diamond stud earrings and spiky hair and Ed Hardy shirts, glowering in a nightclub fist-pumper simmer. Kate got her hair Flowbee'd and mangled into an even more ostentatious design, she went and did many individual TV appearances, she wept and sighed and moaned about how tough everything was and then, like the carnival just packing up one day, it was gone. Rolled outta town. The marriage was over, everyone was sick of the story, the show's ratings had plummeted since the separation (sparked by the cheating allegations). Everything was done.
Of course in true Gosselin fashion they tried to drag the thing out as long as they could. There was a brief spell when it looked like Kate would continue on without Jon, as he was off being a hound with his wife's plastic surgeon's daughter, sea lioning around a Manhattan condo, getting in contract and money spats with TLC. But in the end everyone but Kate knew that that show, about a sad single woman who flew too close to the sun and her eight aging children, wouldn't really play. So it got the axe and that brings us to last night when we watched with weary abandon as ol' fattening Jon talked about growing up and feeling free and kinda reclaiming his 20s. We sighed as Kate teared up and sort of plead, like Emily Webb to her ghostly escorts, to go back. Kate wanted the whole thing back, didn't understand why it had to end. And you could see it in her eyes, could catch that quick flare of dread. She knows it's over for good, that there won't really be a talk show (a pilot was filmed, but I doubt it wil go anywhere), that there won't be any more soft-focus sitdowns with sensitive lady reporters from various network morning shows. No more freebies to New York or Hawaii. That's in the past now.
I'm sure we'll get some updates about the little ones and about Kate's hangdog life. I doubt we'll see much of Jon, until of course he's desperate for more money and decides to do some horrifically degrading new reality show. There was a rumor about something with Michael Lohan. So, you know, that kind of thing. And there it is. Michael Lohan and a dust-gathering cable talk show pilot. The sextuplets are just five years old, and look how far their parents have come!
Look at what an invasive job TV and camera glare have done on this family. The fall of the house of Gosselin stings more sadly than other reality show disasters because, more than most people with their own TV shows, Jon & Kate didn't do anything, industry-wise, prior to this. Not a darn thing. They just sort of had a baby adventure, some cameras showed up, and that became life. As if the cameras had been waiting all along, might be waiting all along for all of us. We just have to find that one thing, that one hook. A creature named Nadya Suleman saw this and followed suit, in even more grotesque fashion, squeezing fourteen kids out into this world over the period of a few short years. Jon and Kate gave birth to so much, but most of all they bore into the world some strange cold strain of reality TV idealism that tells us we can be famous simply for the wonder of our own biology, that talent really is over.
And now, grimly, so are Jon and Kate. Over hard. Two people got greedy and tunnel visioned. Jon who treated two of his mommy-loyal daughters just terribly last night. Kate who wept not for her children, but for her own sour needs. Two people who were given everything for a brief time and then came to expect it always. I'm not sure I can really blame them for that, though we certainly can tsk tsk them for whoring out their own children once they got a taste of fame—of what it feels like to burst out of Central Pee-Ay nothingness.
I hope they enjoy returning to that milieu. And I hope the kids will be OK. I'm fascinated to see who they all grow up to be.
Though I kind of hope, for their sake, that we never find out.